My eight year old son has a tendency when exposed to an entertainment personality, celebrity, or historical figure to ask this one question - "Did they die"? While recently watching season 1 of the old Ironside TV series, the question came. "Did he die"? He being Raymond Burr of course, the veteran television actor best know for his turn as Perry Mason. I liked Burr in his role as wheel chair bound San Francisco detective Robert Ironside. I loved the intensity and not so controlled rage he brought to the part. Yes there is currently a remake of the original series, but as far as I'm concerned, it can only be a pale imitation. Unfortunately, I had to inform my son that Mr. Burr did indeed die in 1993.
All this talk about life and death reminds me about another actor known for his character roles - Abe Vigoda. Abe started his long career about the same time Moses parted the Red Sea. Believe it or not, there are web sites devoted to Mr. Vigoda's mortality. And while ensconced in the parlor game of alive or dead, you might have missed the death of some great American institutions as well.
The U.S. Post Office
There is surely a building close (maybe not so close anymore due to cutbacks and consolidation) to where you live that has the name U.S. Post Office affixed to it. But don't let that fool you. The Postal Service has been on life support for years. It has been hemorrhaging red ink for decades. No amount of rate increases, no amount of advertising and sponsorships (it once sponsored scandal ridden Lance Armstrong's cycling team) could save it. I recently encountered a long time postal employee who had retired. His comment to me seems to sum it all up - "I got out just in time". What happened? People don't write letters anymore, they type. Letters, documents, legal material can be sent through cyberspace. Cursive writing is not even a requirement for most school children these days while keyboarding is. It's the sign of the times. The U.S.P.S. can't compete in the package delivery business anymore either. That's where the real money is and FedEx and UPS have that market sewed up. Perhaps a businessman, not a bureaucrat at the helm could have steered the once revered institution in a different direction and made it relevant. Its current state of affairs reminds me of a once popular hometown cafeteria patronized by folks of a certain age. These folks began dying off until there was no longer enough business to justify keeping the doors open. The post office is dead. I'll miss it.
The Public Library
As a child growing up, my mom would take my sisters and I on scheduled trips to the public library. And while we might remain poor, if she had anything to do about it, we would not remain ignorant. Such a wealth of knowledge and enjoyment at my fingertips - and all for free! I've tried to pass that same love of books and knowledge on to my own kids. But the public library they've encountered is not the library of my youth. And yes, a lot of that has to do with technology. Today's library is so fully automated, you might not even deal with a staff person on your excursion there. The ALA (American Library Association) has compiled stats and has come up with some seemingly impressive details about library usage. The number of library card holders - up. The number of people utilizing library services - up. The number of items circulated - up. All good signs, right? Well, not necessarily. The shelves upon shelves of books I remember in my youth have been replaced by rows and rows of computers. Nothing wrong with that, but my personal observations remind me of the old pay phones at the airport and bus stations. It's a place to make a connection or hook up. And instead of books being checked out, DVDs are the top circulated items. The library as the de facto video store. And according to the ALA, the public library has turned into a de facto employment agency as well. I was under the impression that state and local employment agencies still existed. I guess they don't, and the library of my youth doesn't exist anymore either.
The Great American Bookstore
Well, I guess there's a few hanging on. There's the landmark City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and a store I like to frequent in Austin, TX called BookPeople. But by and large, the quaint Mom and Pop bookshops and independent booksellers have vanished. Now even the chain stores have fallen on hard times. The Barnes and Nobles, the Books A Millions are reeling and contracting. Square footage has given way to devices, gadgets, and gimmicks devoted to ebooks. And in full disclosure, I own a Kindle and am very satisfied with it. It certainly saves on storage space. But you have to admit, there is still something about holding a bound copy of a book and leafing through a glossy magazine that you can't replicate with an ereader. Similar to the public library, bookstores see actual books as props maybe even as museum pieces. In order to make a buck, stores have had to resort to selling coffee mugs, t-shirts, key chains, chia pets, and a boat load of crap - basically everything but books.
Let the post mortem begin. But if you're wondering about Abe Vigoda - he's still going strong at the ripe old age of 92. Long live Abe Vigoda!